Eaves Wins Them Over
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
MILWAUKEE In the euphoria of Wisconsin's national championship, it's worth remembering that Mike Eaves — despite his Badger pedigree — did not always have the easiest time when he took over as head coach four years ago.
Long-time coach Jeff Sauer was being eased aside, and in a case like that, there are always landmines to navigate. But further, he was competing for the job against Mark Johnson, Sauer's assistant and not only a great Badger, NHL player and Olympian in his own right, but the son of revered late Badger coach Bob Johnson.
Then Eaves came in and put his foot down. The atmosphere that was relaxed under Sauer was drastically changed. The old guard had a field day continuing to question the Eaves decision, wondering whether this guy was just going to run roughshod over the program and not get anywhere.
Well, the last of those who still have a bad feeling for that time are undoubtedly either won over at this point, or shamed into silence. Because Mike Eaves, who won a national championship as a player, played in the Stanley Cup finals, and had — let's face it — a much longer track record as a head coach and assistant coach at all levels than Mark Johnson, is now a national champion.
The seniors on this team were Eaves' first recruiting class, putting quite a stamp on that process; guys like Adam Burish, Ryan MacMurchy and Tom Gilbert, who went through the tough times early. They, as freshmen, were brought in to be role models of the program's future, but there were seniors and juniors who were more reluctant to buy in.
"A new coach comes in, and it's tough," MacMurchy said. "He's trying to establish himself, and it's tough when some of the older guys have had a different coach for three years, and different philosophies. It's tough to buy in sometimes. But this year and last year, we knew we were getting it rolling, and everyone was buying into Coach Eaves' systems.
"He was scary at times, for sure. But every year, he's loosened up. And that's because you have to buy in. You've got to be tough at first. That's the kind of coach he is, that's the kind of coach he should be."
Eaves suspended players, ran players off the team, and made other moves with varying degrees of controversy, most of which probably were never made public.
"He wanted to establish his own culture," Burish said. "And he's changed too. There was stuff he did, he wanted to make a point about how hard you need to work and where we're going with this program. And was it overboard at times, was it too much? Yeah, probably. But he wanted to send his message that this is what it was going to be like at Wisconsin, that every day, you bring your lunch pail because you're going to work.
"That's the same way it is now, but things have changed and he's changed and he's adapted to college, and he's realized we have social lives and we have school, and he's been unbelieveable with that. You can't ask for anything more."
It was during this time that Eaves built the reputation as a stern taskmaster. If you weren't around him every day, you'd think he'd be intimidating to speak to. But over the years, you quickly came to realize that he was not really like that at all. He was quick with a laugh, cooperative to the media, and willing to chat.
That was an evolution his players saw more slowly, but they saw it.
"He's not a hard-nosed guy," Burish said. "He's demanding, which you'd expect out of an unbelieveable coach, and he's knows how to get the most out of these guys. It's the same kind of knock he has that we're a defensive-minded team. That's not the way we play. We play good systems and that's it. He's a coach that guys love playing for. You look in his eyes, and guys sense that passion. And it brings the most out of all the guys.
"You ask somebody who the best coach they played for is, and you're going to say Mike Eaves, just because of his love and his passion, and he cares about the guys."
In Eaves' mind, all of this is a conscious choice.
"One of the keys to being an effective coach is giving the team what they need," Eaves said. "If they need direction, if they need sternness, give it to them. If they don't, back off and let them take control and I think we as a coaching staff were able to do more of that this year because we developed it with our seniors. We could back off. And I think I was able to be the lighter guy."
It's with that in mind, that he was able to allow his captains to steer the ship back in the right direction this year. After starting 18-2-2, goalie Brian Elliott got hurt, and then the wheels came off. Even when Elliott came back, the team was still in a funk, getting swept at Mankato and looking destined to have the whole season blow up.
But Eaves stayed calm throughout. The players, meanwhile, called a team meeting.
"It was an attitude thing," Burish said. "It was, 'Brian's injured. We don't know if we can do it anymore. It's hard — do we want to put that hard work in?' And guys said, 'Let's do it. Whatever it takes, let's get it done. Let's work our tails off to get this done.' And we did. We came back to practice that Monday and were excited again. Even before the game today, it was a loose, fun bunch of guys. At that point, we weren't having fun anymore."
It was the turning point of the season, and helped a team avoid another end-of-season swoon, like one that happened last year.
"We went through our typical second-half of the season slump, and us senior guys didn't have time anymore," MacMurchy said. "We got pretty adament and we had a 20-minute meeting where everyone got to say their little bit, and we got things turned around."
For those seniors, it was the culmination of a dream that began four years ago. One that could have turned into a nightmare if they let it. But Eaves brought them into the program to set a new course, and they felt obliged to follow through.
"We knew that hard work would always pay off," MacMurchy said. "And we could see where he was going. There were good games where we said, if we can get everyone playing like this all the time, we'd have a really good team.
"Each day was a struggle (as a freshman). It was the hardest year, the hardest experience of my life. And to help turn this program around, it's going to be such a competitive program from now on."